Curuguaty and the Paraguay Coup

When the landless peasants of the Carperos Campesino Movement moved on to the 70,000 hectare ranch in Curuguaty registered to Blas Riquelme, they would have known that they were risking their lives. Using the same successful methods as elsewhere in Latin America, perhaps most famously by the Landless Peasants Movement (MST) in Brazil – Curuguaty is close to the Brazilian border – the campesinos would occupy the land, hold it, and negotiate with the government. The methods – summarized in the slogan Occupy, Resist, Produce – were effective, but costly. A Paraguayan advisor to the Human Rights Office, Claudio Baez Samaniego, estimated that 150 peasants had been killed from 1989-2003 in police land evictions (1). Baez suggested that police be better trained in more peaceful methods of eviction. The campesinos might have other suggestions – but regardless, peasants who struggle for land are doing so at tremendous risk. Unarmed, they face highly armed police and private armed forces who use violence to demonstrate the price of resistance.

Paraguay has one of the most unequal distributions of land in Latin America, with 85% of the land in the hands of 2.5% of landowners, and many of these concentrations of land, including Riquelme’s, were acquired during the dictatorship years. Riquelme’s fortune, and much of his lands, were acquired under the 45-year dictatorship (1954-1989) of Alfredo Stroessner, whose regime killed at least 4,000 and disappeared at least 400 people, including horrific and demonstrative atrocities against indigenous people. Riquelme was a member of (and former President of Stroessner’s Colorado Party, owner of several supermarkets to go with his thousands of hectares (2).

Even ill-gotten, the lands may not have been legally Riquelme’s. An editorial by Alcibiades Gonzalez Delvalle in ABC Color, Paraguay’s major media source, argues that the 2,000 hectares in question never belonged to Riquleme, that the transfer of land from the dictatorship to the private landowner was never formalized – so that Riquelme’s call to the government to evict the peasants and “follow the law” was itself illegal. With this history and as an exemplar of the inequalities in land, this particular piece of land had been an objective of the landless peasant movement since 2004 (3).

But that is what happened. The big landowner asked the government to follow the law and evict the peasants. The government sent the elite, Colombian counterinsurgency-trained police, among whom was the brother of President Lugo’s security chief, in on June 15 (2). Then, things went horribly wrong.

Well-organized peasants, especially in numbers, can often successfully resist evictions. They do so by preventing the police from using their weapons, by dictating the struggle won’t be based on who has the bigger weapons. What they do not do is shoot back, much less shoot first. But in this case, as the police moved to begin their evictions, six of them were killed in an ambush by precision shots from automatic weapons in three round bursts, above the eyebrow, between the eyes, in the mouth, under the jaw, in the neck, and in the back (4). These are not the type of weapons, or training, that landless peasants suddenly show up with. When peasant movements have taken up arms as they have in Latin America in the past, their initial operations are usually attacks on police stations or paramilitaries, not precision assassinations of police at otherwise unarmed occupations. The shooters were not from the landless peasant movement, though the peasants paid the price for what the attackers did.

The police, predictably, rampaged and killed the campesinos, at least 11, with reports of more, as well as the other predictable abuses – detentions, torture, and arrests (5). The Army airlifted 150 soldiers into the area and took over the operation, at President Lugo’s order. Also predictably, the crime scene was quickly irreversibly tainted and evidence destroyed, so that exactly what occurred will never be known for certain (6).

Paraguay’s media, and politicians, speculated that the peasant movement had been infiltrated by a Paraguayan guerrilla group, the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) (7), but there was no evidence for these speculations, and nor, again, did the strategy make sense. Guerrilla groups that have tried to infiltrate unarmed peasant movements usually do so in ways that enabled them to take credit and win recruits from actions. The outcomes here were a predictable massacre of peasants and, ultimately, the fall of a president. To find out who might be behind it, it is worth looking for who benefited from it.

President Lugo’s Cabinet Chief, Miguel Lopez Perito, identified it as a conspiracy against Lugo’s presidency on the by June 17th (8). So did activists from Lugo’s Tekojoja Party, including Anibal Carrillo Iramain, who went on the radio on June 21:

“What happened there was not an accidental skirmish or an accidental confrontation, but a perfectly mounted, highly professional operation whose objective was precisely to establish a situation of tension and demand for security, whose second chapter would be the political trial” (of President Lugo) (9).

The political trial followed. The Congress and Senate, including many from the old dictator’s Colorado party, as well as Liberals from the opposition and defectors from President Lugo’s party, came up with a formula: Lugo may not have killed anybody, but he facilitated the deaths, so he had to go (10). And he did go. His Vice President, Federico Franco from the Liberal Party, took over to finish out Lugo’s term before 2013 elections. As Todd Gordon and Jeff Webber pointed out in the Bullet, attempts to impeach Lugo started in 2009 – the Paraguayan establishment and political opposition kept at it until they found (or created) an event big enough to justify a coup (11).

The US Embassy in Paraguay was certainly aware of this. On March 28, 2009, they sent a cable home that described the opposition’s plan as follows:

“Their goal: Capitalize on any Lugo mis-steps to break the political deadlock in Congress, impeach Lugo and assure their own political supremacy.”

The US Ambassador describes the opposition’s ‘dream scenario’ in 2009 as more or less what came to pass in 2012:

[The] “dream scenario involves legally impeaching Lugo, even if on spurious grounds. (With a two-thirds vote, the Chamber of Deputies may bring impeachment proceedings against the president. Like in the United States, the Senate tries impeachments, again requiring two-thirds vote to convict). The presidential baton would thus, in this scenario, pass to Vice President Federico Franco, who would be constitutionally required to call vice-presidential elections within 90 days.” (12)

Ten years ago in April 2002, when Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez was overthrown in a short-lived coup, the evidence suggests that the opposition had snipers kill some of their own, and some pro-Chavez demonstrators, in order to provide the pretext for the coup. All of the tactics used in Paraguay have precedents – in Venezuela in 2002, in Haiti in 2004, and in Honduras in 2009. Those attacked in these coups represent a wide political spectrum. Chavez is different from Haiti’s Aristide, and both of these are quite different from Honduras’s Zelaya and Paraguay’s Lugo. Aristide went to some lengths, but Zelaya and Lugo went to great lengths to prove they were willing to compromise with their elites. Why did they get overthrown anyway?

Lugo was elected by a population tired of the Colorado Party. He was elected in anticipation of land reform and of breathing space for the movements that had been devastated by the dictatorship and the neoliberal transitional decades that followed. The people hope for land, dignity, democracy. The elite vision is one of concentrated land, policed by violence, ringed by US bases scarred with dams or mines producing raw materials for manufacture elsewhere (probably China) and consumption elsewhere again (probably North America). Even if Lugo didn’t fulfill them, the coup was an attack on the dreams themselves, in a very concrete way: a lesson to the population about what will happen if you’re hoping even for a light reformer.

Now Paraguay is expected to look to Honduras for what will happen next: the forces of democracy (already organized in Paraguay as the Frente para la Defensa de Democracia – or FDD) will be put down (and these deaths won’t be recorded as major incidents like Curuguaty). Elections will be organized, a wide range of subtle and overt cheating will occur, the right people will find themselves in office, they will facilitate the appropriate plunder of the country, and the only reminder of what occurred will be some hazy linking of Lugo to a massacre at Curaguaty.


(1) ABC Color. 17 de junio de 2012. Unos 150 campesinos fueron asesinados en desalojos, segun datos del asesor de Fiscalia.

(2) Idilio Mendez Grimaldi. June 22, 2012. ?Por que derrocaron a Lugo?

(3) Alcibiades Gonzalez Delvalle. June 24, 2012. ?Hasta cuando? ABC Color. 16 de junio de 2012. Larga historia de invasiones.

(4) ABC Color. 15 de junio de 2012. Precision de tiradores expertos. Later on, ABC Color reported that shotguns and grenades were found at the scene – but information from the wounds, early on, is probably more reliable than information about what was found (or planted) at the scene, later on, after a convenient political narrative is spun and facts are needed to pad it. ABC Color. 15 de junio de 2012. Asesinos usaron escopetas.; ABC Color. 16 de junio de 2012. Escopetas, cazabobos y machetes.–cazabobos-y-machetes-414760.html

(5) Dario Pignotti. June 21, 2012. Paraguay: There are More Dead Comrades. Upside Down World, translation from Pagina/12, Argentina. ABC Color. 18 de junio de 2012. Denuncian tortura a detenidos en Curuguaty.

(6) ABC Color. 19 de junio de 2012. Un arma desaparece de la escena del crimen.

(7) ABC Color. 16 de junio de 2012. Lugo ordena salida de militares, pero su gobierno no vincula ataque con EPP.

(8) ABC Color. 17 de junio de 2012. Matanza de policias fue on complot, denuncian.

(9) ABC Color. 21 de junio de 2012. Masacre en Curuguaty fue montada, dicen.

(10) ABC Color, 21 de junio de 2012. Tuma dice que Lugo facilito matanza en Curuguaty. ABC Color, 18 de junio de 2012. Culpan a Lugo por la violencia.

(11) Todd Gordon and Jeffrey R. Webber. June 26, 2012. Paraguay’s Parliamentary Coup and Ottawa’s Imperial Response. The Bullet, Socialist Project no. 657.

(12) US Embassy Cable March 28, 2009. 09ASUNCION189. Published by Wikileaks. The author of the cable, probably Ambassador Liliana Ayalde, has an amusing style, including an alliterative title “PARAGUAYAN POLS PLOT PARLIAMENTARY PUTSCH”. She describes the post-coup President, Franco, as “known for being an old-school Liberal party politician with an oversized ego and a difficult personality.”